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Picking the perfect ride: Five tips to find the best car for you

“If my van doesn’t start, I’m in trouble,” says Leanne Kocsis, a working mom whose family of six relies on having a vehicle. It must run reliably, accommodate her family, keep them safe and be fuel efficient. And, the loan payments can’t rob their savings.

Whether you’re a soccer mom or a jet-setter, choosing the right vehicle isn’t something to take lightly.

“Do your research before you buy,” advises Kocsis. As a member of financial services provider USAA, she used car-buying tools on USAA.com to find her match, a Toyota Sienna.

“The car-buying experience is unique to each person,” says Steve Thompson, assistant vice president in charge of USAA’s Car Buying Service. “We try to help people understand the cost and value of a vehicle – beyond the sticker price – so they can get the right car for their needs.”

Savvy shoppers get the most for their money by weighing all options in advance. Start your search with these factors in mind.

1. Fuel economy

Soaring gas prices increase demand for fuel-efficient vehicles. But, carefully consider whether you drive enough to make fuel economy important. Double-check your math for hybrid vehicles. Unless you’re a road warrior, a hybrid’s fuel savings may not offset the higher purchase price.

What about electric cars? The technology and infrastructure is still in its infancy, and Thompson and Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for TrueCar.com, agree that buying now is risky for cost-conscious consumers.

2. Safety

Safety should play a role in every car-buying decision. You can find most crash test ratings at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety website at www.iihs.org.

Most new cars come with extensive safety features such as air bags, anti-lock brakes and crumple zones. You can decide whether additional precautions are worth the extra cost.

3. Reliability

Objective research tools such as Consumer Reports offer predictions of reliability based on their own road tests, consumer surveys and other data. Be sure to also check used-car listings. If the vehicle you’re considering tends to sell for much less than similar models, that might indicate poor performance. For new cars, reliability reports are generally positive. If reliability is a concern, consider an extended warranty. Extended warranties come in all shapes and sizes, so do your homework.

4. Insurance costs

Your age, where you live, and how you drive affect your insurance premiums. But your car makes a difference too. You might pay more to insure a vehicle that has been involved in more accidents, causes more damage, costs more to repair or is stolen more frequently than other models.

“If you’re on the fence between two similar models, an insurance quote might help you decide,” says Thompson.

5. Financing

Don’t wait until you’re at the dealership to discuss financing. A lower annual percentage rate could save hundreds of dollars over the life of the loan, even if it means passing up a dealership cash rebate.

“We got pre-approved for an auto loan from our bank and gave the dealer the chance to match it,” says Kocsis. “They couldn’t come close.”

Eliminate the guesswork

Choosing the right car can be time-consuming and confusing. To make it easier, some service providers do the research for you.

USAA’s “Best Value” list, for example, uses quantitative data to recommend one vehicle in each of 16 categories, from SUVs to compacts, as the best overall buy. Vehicles are ranked by relating the purchase price to a litany of other factors affecting safety, power, reliability, fuel efficiency, insurance costs and more. The 2011 list is available at www.usaa.com/bestvalue.

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